Recent years have seen major advances in our understanding of the historical climatology of tropical and subtropical areas, primarily through the analysis of documentary materials such as weather diaries, newspapers, personal correspondence, government records and ships logs. This paper presents a critical review of these advances, drawing upon examples from across the tropics and subtropics. We focus in particular on the ways in which documentary evidence has been used to improve our understanding of: (i) historical temperature variability, (ii) fluctuations in annual and seasonal precipitation, and (iii) the occurrence, severity and impact of tropical cyclones. We also discuss the ways in which documentary evidence has been combined with information from natural archives to reconstruct historical El Niño and La Niña episodes. We conclude with some suggestions for future research. These include the exploration of historical documents from hitherto under-researched regions and the application of new methodological approaches highlighted as part of the review.